ERIC Identifier: ED304024
Publication Date: 1988-12-00
Author: Thompson, Richard T. - Johnson, Dora E.
ERIC Clearinghouse on Languages and Linguistics Washington DC.
Proficiency Testing in the Less Commonly Taught Languages. ERIC
This "Digest" assumes that the reader is familiar with the general principles
underlying language proficiency assessment. A description of the development of
the guidelines, which have been the basis for much of the recent work in foreign
language teaching and assessment, is provided in P. Lowe, Jr. & J.E.
Liskin-Gasparro, "Testing Speaking Proficiency: The Oral Interview. ERIC: Q
& A." This "Digest" is based on the chapter, "Issues Concerning the Less
Commonly Taught Languages," written by I. Thompson, R.T. Thompson, and D. Hiple,
in the ERIC/CLL Language in Education series monograph, "Second Language
Proficiency Assessment: Current Issues," edited by P. Lowe, Jr. & C.W.
Stansfield. The monograph is available from Prentice Hall Regents, Mail Order
Processing, 200 Old Tappan Road, Old Tappan, NJ 07675, or by calling
GENERIC GUIDELINES AND THE LCTLS
The guidelines for
language proficiency assessment have their roots in the efforts of the U.S.
Government's language training community. The American Council on the Teaching
of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) and the Educational Testing Service spearheaded the
movement to adapt the government Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR)
proficiency descriptions and guidelines for use in foreign language programs in
colleges and universities. Since 1981, non-language-specific guidelines have
been published and revised periodically, and are now being assimilated into many
foreign language programs to serve as a foundation for the development of
Much of the early work in developing the guidelines was based on Spanish,
French, and German. As the circle widened to include languages such as Russian,
Chinese, Japanese, and Arabic, it quickly became apparent that the original
guidelines were too Eurocentric. The two most obvious problems were: (1) a bias
toward grammatical categories of western European languages, such as tense and
gender; and (2) the concern that learners would require much time to master the
principles and mechanics of non-Roman writing systems.
Efforts to expand the ACTFL guidelines to accommodate the less commonly
taught languages (LCTLs) began with the development of guidelines for Chinese,
Japanese, and Russian, and with the training of testers for these languages.
Tester training for Arabic and Portuguese followed soon thereafter. Workshops
and familiarization projects were expanded to include teachers of Hindi,
Indonesian, and some African languages.
ADAPTING THE GUIDELINES TO FIT SPECIFIC LCTLS
To apply the
generic guidelines to the construction of proficiency descriptions for a
particular language, the target language itself must be carefully assessed.
Factors such as cultural context, appropriate content, and what constitutes
accuracy must be taken into account for each language. Theoretical problems in
adapting the generic guidelines to a particular language include complex
morphologies in Russian, diglossia in Arabic, the early appearance of register
in Indonesian and Japanese, and the presence of Hindi-English code-switching at
high levels of proficiency among educated native Hindi speakers. The nature of
writing systems such as those used in Chinese and Japanese also presents a
special challenge to the development of guidelines because the length of
training required to learn these languages is greater than that required to
learn Spanish or French.
Teachers of Arabic, for example, are now discussing ways in which various
dialects of Arabic can be accommodated when testing for proficiency. The generic
guidelines were developed to test a full range of oral proficiency, including
informal conversation which, in Arabic, is generally conducted in the local
dialect. Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), the language of the print and, to a
considerable degree, of the broadcast media, is also widely used in more formal
and international settings, although the extent to which native speakers will be
prepared to switch registers varies considerably from one dialect to another.
The general consensus at present is to seek a compromise while further study of
the problems in developing guidelines for Arabic continues. Thus, when testing
for proficiency in Arabic, tester and candidate replicate the situation in the
Arab world itself by identifying through the interview process the common
language base through which they can communicate. Testers will accept responses
in MSA and/or any colloquial dialect with which they are familiar. Because an
ability to communicate in both MSA and a dialect is characteristic of native
speakers, proficiency in both MSA and a colloquial variety is required to
achieve a "Superior" rating in Arabic.
Another practical consideration is how to handle a language's sociolinguistic
peculiarities when developing language-specific proficiency guidelines. For
example, Indonesian requires immediate recognition of strict rules that govern
appropriate style when addressing others. Hence, forms of address are taught
from the very beginning in Indonesian courses, and the guidelines for Indonesian
must reflect this and other necessary sociolinguistic rules that define human
relationships and status peculiar to Indonesian society.
TRAINING LANGUAGE-SPECIFIC TESTERS
language-specific tester training currently exists in only a handful of the
LCTLs, it is likely that most initial training will be mediated through English
or through another language known to the prospective tester, e.g. training
through English or French for Asian and African specialists. Training might also
be carried out in a language that is structurally similar to the target
language, e.g. training through Russian in order to test in another Slavic
language. Another solution is to pair the tester with a native speaker of the
target language, and allow the tester to work with the native speaker in a
capacity similar to that used in the former linguist/informant method of
language instruction. Thus, the trained tester guides the informant through the
interview, and the two make a joint decision as to the final rating. It is also
possible that semi-direct tests of oral proficiency will be developed and
validated against the oral interview for those much less commonly taught
languages for which developing a cadre of trained testers may not be possible in
the near future.
DEVELOPING COMPETENCY-BASED LANGUAGE PROGRAMS
training programs funded by the U.S. Department of Education are now required to
provide sufficient evidence that they are making changes to include
competency-based teaching and appropriate testing in their individual
institutions. Programs are already beginning to institute different approaches
to the development of language teaching materials and curricula. Proficiency is
a major topic of concern at summer institutes. The African language teaching
community has developed a set of common goals and priorities, as well as
possible avenues of coordination between centers. Semi-direct tests for the
LCTLs are beginning to be developed based on the ACTFL guidelines and adapted
for specific target languages. The Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL) has
already developed semi-direct tests in Portuguese, Chinese, Hebrew, Indonesian,
and Hausa, and the University of Pennsylvania has developed a semi-direct test
LCTLS AND POLICY QUESTIONS
The appearance of recent
legislation and regulations relating to proficiency testing and competency-based
language programs has created a new set of policy questions that funding
agencies and post-secondary institutions will have to face. The Education
Amendments of 1986 included a number of significant changes in Title VI of the
Higher Education Act (Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowships Program,
1988), which is the legislative basis for several of the international education
programs administered by the Center for International Education in the U.S.
Department of Education. There will be intense competition for the limited
training resources currently available as universities seek to come into
compliance with these legislative changes. The U.S. Department of Education,
academia, and the major professional foreign language associations will need to
cooperate in setting realistic priorities and in developing the necessary
guidelines. The most pressing question is one of deciding which languages or
language groups are more important and should have guidelines developed first.
The second pressing question is how the nearly 150 national resource centers and
fellowships programs in foreign languages, area and international studies,
funded in part by the U.S. Department of Education under Title VI of the Higher
Education Act (Thompson, Thompson, and Hiple, 1988), will meet the requirements
of the new legislation.
At the secondary school level, schools are beginning to teach languages other
than Spanish, French, and German. Russian, Japanese, Chinese, and in some places
Arabic, are now taught in several major urban school systems all over the
country. With guidance and encouragement from the professional community, state
systems will need to adopt proficiency assessment procedures in these languages
to enable teachers to meet certification requirements. Such areas of foreign
language curricula as placement, syllabus design, course and program evaluation,
entry and exit requirements, and required proficiency levels of teaching
assistants and teachers will also change as a result of the language-specific
proficiency tests (Byrnes, 1987).
THE RESEARCH AGENDA
For the moment, the application of the
generic guidelines to the LCTLs has raised questions that offer opportunities
for new research in the field of foreign language acquisition and learning. A
number of scholars involved in the field of second language acquisition and
testing have suggested such areas of possible research as: the maximum level of
proficiency that can be reached under certain conditions; the variables that
affect learning; the relationship between second language (L2) acquisition and
L2 instruction; and the effect of formal vs. informal learning. Such research
calls for interdisciplinary cooperation and training.
At the testing level, researchers are calling attention to issues in the area
of interrater reliability. Examples of these issues are: interrater reliability
across languages; reliability between government- and ACTFL-certified oral
proficiency testers; examination of differences between native and nonnative
interviewers with regard to both elicitation procedures and rating; and
maintenance of rater reliability over time.
Most importantly, the establishment of generic guidelines and the subsequent
evolution of the proficiency movement provide research opportunities by giving
LCTL practitioners a framework within which second language acquisition can be
observed and evaluated. This research can be applied to both oral proficiency
and the acquisition of receptive skills.
Byrnes, H. (1987). Second language acquisition:
Insights from a proficiency orientation. In H. Byrnes & M. Canale (Eds.) "Defining and developing proficiency: Guidelines, implementations, and concepts" (ACTFL Foreign Language Education Series, pp. 107-131). Lincolnwood, IL: National Textbook Co.
Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowships Program, 657, 20 U.S.C. 1022 (1988).
Thompson, I., Thompson, R.T., & Hiple, D. (1988). Issues concerning the less commonly taught languages. In P. Lowe, Jr., & C.W. Stansfield (Eds.), "Second language proficiency assessment: Current issues, Language in education: Theory and practice, no. 70." Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 296 612).
FOR FURTHER READING
"ACTFL proficiency guidelines." (1986). Hastings-on-Hudson, NY: American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.
Allen, R.M.A. (1985). Arabic proficiency guidelines. "Al-cArabiyya, 18(1-2), 45-70.
Asadi, R. (1983). "Current trends in measuring American undergraduates Persian language proficiency. Kalamazoo, MI: Western Michigan University. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 230 071)
Clark, J.L.D. (1986). "Handbook for the development of tape-mediated, ACTFL/ILR scale-based tests of speaking proficiency in the less commonly taught languages." Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 278 265)
Clark, J.L.D., & Li, Y. (1986). "Development, validation, and dissemination of a proficiency-based test of speaking ability in Chinese and an associated assessment model for other less commonly taught languages. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 278 264)
Liskin-Gasparro, J.E. (1984). The ACTFL proficiency guidelines: A historical perspective. In T. Higgs (Ed.), "Teaching forproficiency, the organizing principle" (ACTFL Foreign Language Education Series, pp. 11-42). Lincolnwood, IL: National Textbook Co.
Lowe, P. Jr. & Liskin-Gasparro, J.E. (1986). "Testing Speaking proficiency: The oral Interview. An update. Q & A." Washington,DC: Center for Applied Linguistics. (ERIC Document ReproductionService No. ED 276 299)
Stansfield, C.W., & Harman, C. (Eds.). (1987). "ACTFL proficiency guidelines for the less commonly taught languages.: Washington,DC: Center for Applied Linguistics. (ERIC Document ReproductionService No. ED 289 345)
Stansfield, C.W., & Kenyon, D.M. (1987). "Issues and answers in extending the ACTFL proficiency guidelines to the less commonly taught languages." Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 289 344)
Valdman, A. (Ed.) (1987). "Proceedings of the symposium on the evaluation of foreign language proficiency." Bloomington, IN: Indiana University.